I grew up in different parts of India, hearing different languages, breathing different cultures, befriending different people. The defence campuses we lived in were mini Indias, a potpourri of North and South, East and West. My brothers and I made Hindi -- a language so alien from our mother-tongue (Malayalam) -- our own. My mother expanded her culinary skills by adopting different cuisines from all over the country to satisfy her children's non-Malayali taste buds. Life in Air Force campuses had hardly any dull moments. We would eagerly wait for Diwali to burst crackers with our friends and on Eid the entire campus would come home for mom's famous biryaniand semiya payasam.
When in school I would put my heart into singing "Saare Jahaan se Accha Hindustan Hamara." Because I truly believed that our India is unique, and is the best place for people of different faiths, tongues and cultures to not just survive but thrive together. The India of my childhood was a beautiful, wonderful place because we were one people, not despite our differences, but because of them.
I am nostalgic for that India and for that little girl who believed all was well with the world. The India of my childhood seems like a faraway place. Or maybe it never existed in the first place.
I know now that if you are not an upper-class, upper-caste Hindu male, India is not the best place for you. Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, Atheists and everyone else have to fight to be seen as equal citizens. We have to justify at each step where our loyalties lie because, for some reason, not being born into the "norm" makes us traitorous.
We have to hold our tongues and push back into our throat legitimate criticisms of the government or be labelled "anti-nationals"'. We are told at each point that we don't belong and that we should be grateful for just being allowed to stay here. Their message is clear -- you can be "Indian" only in one way.
We are forced to accept this harassment quietly or asked to pack our bags and leave for Pakistan (the land where all India-rejects automatically end up, apparently). It doesn't matter that this soil is as much ours as theirs, that our fathers and mothers also gave their blood for its freedom, that we also dream of growth and prosperity and harmony. No it doesn't. In this "us and them" , we are "them" until we toe the line and shed every marker of our difference, leave every opinion that is contrary and become dumb spectators in this self-destructing circus. We are told to accept the rabid fascism, virulent racism and blatant sexism or threatened with more labels than we can bear.
I am sorry, we can't and we won't accept this. This country belongs to the rest of us too and we will reclaim what is rightfully ours. Anyone who thinks otherwise can go eat a kulfi. Take that from a hijab-wearing, beef-eating, five-times-praying, Malayalam/Tamil/Hindi/English-speaking Muslim woman.